Monday, June 15, 2015

Guest Post: "Why Music? Because Music Works." by Darcy Hill

Today's guest post is written by Darcy Hill of One Arts Infusion Collaborative. Many thanks to Darcy for submitting this article! 

They were from the far east side of town, and we were from the far west.  Our lives, our experiences, and our schedules were worlds apart despite the few miles that separated us. It’s not that we couldn’t have been friends; it’s just that our paths would never have crossed. That is, until “The Project,” that cast us all on the same team, transitioned from dream to enactment. 

Two very different fifth grade worlds were about to collide and in that collision, be called upon to create and then perform a rap depicting the story of our city, our shared story.  It was to be a part of a much larger original musical work entitled, “Hometown History,” and was dreamed and written to be shared by children to an audience of all neighbors from all neighborhoods of our hometown.  It was to serve as a big affirming hug to a city besieged by violence, unemployment, and fear.  It was to be just one step toward building a bridge of hope and trust between neighbors.  

The first meeting of the fifth graders  occurred at the west side school and although the air was filled with a certain amount of  tentativeness,  a pinch of suspicion, and a good dollop of curiosity, the lengthy laundry list of tasks to be accomplished while together served to quickly  focus us all  beyond our piddily concerns and doubts. We attended to the business of getting the job done and that demanded immediate cooperative effort; all hands on deck, so to speak. We worked exceedingly hard, we learned, shared, collaborated, laughed, perfected, discussed, fell short, tried again, cheered each other on, applauded ourselves, supported, encouraged, questioned, explained, tried harder, kept practicing, saw progress, high-fived,  and, after a couple of hours, enjoyed a pizza lunch together with these precious new friends.  The next few weeks were committed to practicing on our own at our respective schools.  

The second meeting occurred at the east side school, and the air was filled with excitement, anticipation and warmth as we reconvened our awesome fifth grade team.  The local news media showed up to capture the joy of this creative team of fifth grade bridge builders as they zealously rehearsed their proud rap, and sang, danced, played, and laughed as all children should and do from every side of town in every town around the globe. 

Music brought us together. Music brought balm to a hometown afflicted with fear and distrust. Music brought laughter, peace, joy and friendship. Music built a bridge of hope and possibility. Music always does.  Music levels the playing field and invites each one to play. Music is a universal language that transcends circumstances and disengages exclusivity.  Music links us, binds us, welcomes us, and calls us into a shared joy.  

Why music? Because it heals our hearts and makes us better.


About Darcy Hill: I am a teacher. Over the past 30 years, I have been committed to reaching the hearts of the diverse students I teach by writing curricula immersed in original song, drama, and creative movement to bring subject matter to life, to kindle imaginations, and to instill a love for learning. I believe that arts integration holds a key to increased student engagement in the learning process. I believe that the arts are a powerful tool to build collaborative bridges of hope and joy between neighbors and organizations within communities, and I am deeply committed to local efforts of this sort. I have written numerous musicals for my students over the years. One of the most recent original pieces was “Forever Honest Abe”(about Abraham Lincoln) which we performed  May 2014 in Springfield, IL including a recitation of the Gettysburg Address delivered on the floor of the Illinois State Senate. The previous year we performed the original “On Being Wright” (about Frank Lloyd Wright) at Wright-designed Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. We performed in our hometown of Rockford, IL as well to heighten awareness of the genius of Wright in preparation for the local opening of the Laurent House, Wright’s only handicap accessible house. Just prior to that, we performed “Hometown History,” a musical I wrote about our city. We engaged the support and involvement of more than 25 local organizations as a part of this effort and earned a “Mayor’s Arts Award” for collaborative project of the year. We are presently up to our ears in this summer’s project is a children’s operetta entitled, “Araminta: The Life of Harriet Tubman,” which we will teach to 100 under-served and special needs students and then perform locally as well as in Wisconsin at an Underground Railroad Museum. 

Music teaches. Music heals. Music helps build bridges between neighbors. Time and time again over more than 30 years I have witnessed the power and preciousness of music to reach into situations and bring hope. 

I was born and raised in Wisconsin, am a UW-Madison grad, and a 30 year teacher in Illinois.  I have been married 27 years to a very patient man, have 3 remarkable sons, 2 rambunctious Labs, a most inspiring extended family, and a lifelong zeal for playing the piano and writing music.

Although exceedingly late in my career, I just completed a Master's Degree in 2013 in Curriculum and Instruction from Concordia University Portland, thereby achieving a bucket list dream. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Easy Recital Prep and Gift Idea for Students

The trending question of the past few weeks, it seems, is "What gift should I give my students after the recital?"

Here's a fun and simple idea that is easy to implement, very affordable, and looks amazing. This is the first time I've given a gift like this, and I'm so pleased with the final result. Drum roll please...

Ta-Da! I was so excited to give all of my students a personalized wordle/word cloud art gift at our spring recital in May! 

Here's how I made this. First, I asked all of my students at group class a couple of weeks ago to write down 15 words that describe themselves, but didn't tell them why, then I took those 15 words, added their name, the year, and their recital pieces and composers, and added the information to a form at to create their gifts. I was able to upload the fonts I wanted to use, even though they had a ton of different fonts from which to choose. The font choices in this gift match the fonts I'm using in our recital programs and certificates (see below), and I love how they turned out. The colors are personalized for each student - favorite colors, college team colors, etc. The color options are endless, and the shapes, in this case eighth notes, are fun to experiment with. I printed the gifts onto glossy photo paper, framed them in cute 5x7 frames from The Dollar Tree (only $1 each), and my students LOVED them!

After creating all the items I needed for my own studio recital, including invitations, programs, and certificates of participation, I created and uploaded a piano recital kit of editable recital templates that is available for purchase in my store. Click here to purchase the Piano Recital Kit. Follow me on Teachers Pay Teachers to be the first to know when new products are available! Here are our recital programs, invitations, and certificates. They contain the same fonts used in the gifts above, so everything for the recital was coordinated perfectly. The Piano Recital Kit contains templates for Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter Recitals, so it can be used year-round! 

In addition to the certificates of participation above, I also gave some fun certificates to my students for accomplishing various goals and improving in specific areas throughout the year. You can purchase the entire set of editable certificates here! There are full color and black and white versions, and there are 63 different awards in each pack. With this huge pack of certificates, you'll be able to give tons of fun awards that your students will love. There are also templates in 3 designs that you can personalize for your students with awards that are specific to your own studio. 

I hope these ideas make your recital planning and prep much easier, and will give you more time to focus on preparing your students instead of having to spend so much time thinking of ideas for fun gifts, programs, invitations, and certificates! Happy Recital! :)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Plucky Pianista Blog is Accepting Guest Posts!

The Plucky Pianista blog is embarking on a new and exciting journey of accepting guest posts for publication by The Plucky Pianista Blog! If you're interested in submitting an article for review and possible publication at the blog, read below and click the link at the end of this post to visit the submissions page. 
If you have never blogged but are interested in blogging for the first time, if you’re a seasoned blogger looking for a place to share your ideas, if you’re interested in starting your own blog but would like to try your hand at blogging before you set out on your own, or if you just love sharing with others about exciting happenings in the field of music, then you have come to the right place!
The Plucky Pianista Blog is now accepting submissions for review and possible publication at The Plucky Pianista Blog! All areas of music are welcome! Did you try something new in your classroom or studio and want to share it with the world? Submit an article! Are you using technology in your classroom or studio in a unique and meaningful way? Submit an article! Do you love writing about music topics and need a platform? Submit an article! Are you working on building your online presence in professional music circles but don’t know where to start? Submit an article! Do you have valuable nuggets of wisdom about the teaching and learning process that you would love to share? Submit an article!
Submission does not guarantee publication of your article, but most articles that are received are published. If you have questions about the submission form or the submission process, use the Contact Form on my website at to contact me. Thank you for your continued contribution to the field of music education!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

3 Rules for Magical, Musical, Moving Performances

In recent months, I've heard a lot of teachers discussing and wondering how to help students play with emotion and feel their performances to create something magical. I wondered that myself for a very long time, and during my early years of teaching, I said things such as, "Play with feeling" or "Play with emotion" or "Play from your heart" because those things had been said to me by teachers when I was growing up. 

However, I have always been a concrete-sequential learner and I just couldn't figure out what my teachers meant when they said things that were so abstract. So I just did my best, always wondering if I was measuring up to their expectations of "playing with feeling". Eventually, things naturally started to click, but those early years definitely left me feeling a bit unsure of myself with regards to playing musically. 

Fast-forward many years to today, and I'm going to share what's working for me and my students right now. Rather than giving them abstract directions like the above statements, I have found that giving them concrete directions helps them know what to do when they haven't yet learned to tap into their own emotions and feelings, and it helps students begin to understand what "music does" and what "music wants to do" in a general sense, and how they can use that knowledge to play musically. 

These concrete directions are "music rules" that I teach my students from very early on in their piano lessons, and we review and review until these rules become healthy habits, which evolve into beautiful and musical performances that have made me cry more than once in lessons. I'm thrilled when that happens, and my students don't quite know what to do when Mrs. Melody is sitting in her chair with tears streaming down her face and mom is sitting on the sofa speechless, wiping the tears away. Those moments are beyond magical. 

How can you create such depth and musicality in your own students' playing? How can your students present such moving performances that YOU are the one sitting in silence, your cheeks glistening with tears of joy? 

If your students follow these 3 rules, they will have the ability to create magical, musical, moving performances every time they play the piano. 

I know, it sounds so simple, but it's truly a very important part of teaching students how to shape a phrase. During a beginning student's first lesson (the mini-lesson held during the student's interview), I teach students how to play "Billy Boy" by rote. "Billy Boy" is a brilliantly-composed black key piece from the Finger Starters book by Lynn Freeman Olson, and I use it to teach quarter and half notes, steady beat, form, ritardando, and Music Rule #1 (decrescendo), all during the first lesson. I don't tell students the musical terms just yet - we simply talk about what the music wants to do. I teach the piece by rote, then we play it as a duet. I've memorized the accompaniment so that I don't need to play from the book, and that makes the moment feel so much more organic. We definitely make the most of this short piece of music!  The parents LOVE that their child can play a piece in less than 10 minutes, the child sounds amazing, and when we add Music Rule #1 to the end (a nice decrescendo) then go even further and add a ritardando, I've truly seen parents get emotional during the interview. It's beautiful. 

I introduce Music Rule #2 to students after they have become comfortable with Music Rule #1. Then we look for the shape of the melody within their pieces, they learn to draw the "get louder" and "get softer" symbols throughout their pieces, then they learn to play louder and softer and begin shaping phrases. I make a huge deal of how amazing the music sounds when they play this way, and the way they are playing, combined with the grins on their faces, let me know they really understand what to do. Of course, this is all presented to them in a very concrete, precise, and logical way, in incremental steps that they can follow, without giving them the names of the symbols until a week or two later. I truly believe that teaching them these ideas of musicality as concrete rules is a necessary step towards independent musicality, which is my goal with all of my students. 

Now that Music Rules #1 and #2 are solidly in place, I introduce Music Rule #3: The highest note is usually the loudest. Music Rule #3 introduces the idea of a phrase's focal point and gives students the opportunity to understand how to shape a phrase as it moves towards the focal point and away from the focal point. I also tell my students that we'll draw an arrow to this note because it's at the top of the mountain, and that helps us know how far we need to climb. 

I was introducing focal points to one of my little girls recently, and coincidentally, she had been studying Mount Fuji at school that day. She immediately named all of the the focal points in her piece Mount Fuji, and declared that she had to climb and climb, louder and louder, to reach the top of Mount Fuji, then once she reached the top, she would yell "Hooray!", then go down the other side, softer and softer as she went. It was especially adorable that the first focal point we were discussing was Treble G, so she lovingly named that focal point "Mount Foo-G". She's such a cutie :) The idea of focal points definitely came to life for her that day, and I had no doubt she would always remember how to find them in her music and be able to shape her phrases both towards and away from the focal points. 

These 3 simple yet profound rules are easy enough for any student to grasp and follow, and they'll give even your least-musical kiddos the opportunity to wow you with their new ability to play musically. Once students become accustomed to these music rules and are comfortable using them on a daily basis, the abstract idea of playing musically begins to permeate them, and they naturally begin to make the shift from playing musically in a concrete way, to playing musically in the truest sense of the word. 

Eventually, I introduce balance, voicing, tone matching, and more to their toolbox, but that's another post for another day. 

I've uploaded a free set of these 3 music rules to my TpT store, and you can download the set here. In exchange for the free download, please leave a kind word of feedback on the product page. Thank you! 

What are YOUR tried and true aids for helping students play musically? Please share them by leaving a comment below. 

Freebie: 3 Rules for Magical, Musical, Moving Performances

Monday, February 02, 2015

Learn to Teach Pop Piano with PianoFlix

One of your students enters your studio for his lesson and places a piece of sheet music on the music rack of your piano. He says he wants to learn to play it for the school talent show (only 3 weeks away!), and you become a little nervous because that particular student isn't known for learning music quickly. You lean in for a closer look and notice a piece of pop music. You panic. Why? Because your training is in classical music and you have no idea what to do next!

Panic no longer, friends, because help is on the way! You may have heard about a fabulous new course by Tim Topham, one of our foremost international authorities on teaching pop piano music, and the course is called PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano.

PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano is an eight-video series broken down into clear and concise step-by-step instructions that will have you feeling comfortable and confident about teaching pop piano music in no time! I had the pleasure of taking this course recently, and it is well worth the investment. This video series is packed with information, resources, and teaching tips, and there are also a ton of helpful hints, extras, videos, links, and more that will provide you with so many additional ideas to explore!

Here are the topics that are covered in PianoFlix, and you can even watch the first two for free! These titles and descriptions listed below are from the PianoFlix website, which contains some amazing information on this course. You'll definitely want to click any of the links in this article to visit Tim's website. Read the information contained on that page, and I'm sure you'll be hooked on PianoFlix!

Video 1: Before you begin...
Bringing pop into your teaching, pedagogical merits of pop piano, balancing the musical diet, the pop teacher's mindset

Chords and progressions, the amazing HookTheory, circle of fifths, and form and structure {Yes, you can teach all these things within the context of pop piano! What a win-win situation!}

Video 3: Where to find music
Terrific online resources for locating music, using YouTube video tutorials, finding usefulness in guitar tabs

Video 4: You want to play what?!!
What to do in the scenario in this article's opening paragraph, resources, links, videos, teaching and playing by ear, working out what the student wants to play

Video 5: Re-arranging for dummies
What to do if a student asks to play a song that is too hard, making songs playable even when they're too difficult, simplifying left hand patterns

Video 6: Pop that works on piano
The best pop songs for piano, finding the best music to teach, the pop music wiki page, helping students understand that some pop music is better than others

Video 7: Apps and technology
Best apps for teaching pop, demonstrations of using these apps, HookTheory, more tech resources and links

Video 8: Arranging 101
Helping students make their own pop arrangements, arranging ideas, experimenting with styles, and online examples

You can already tell just by reading the titles and brief descriptions of the videos that you're in for a real treat! Even if you know (or feel you know) absolutely nothing about teaching pop piano, there's no reason to fear. Tim starts at the very beginning and presents the information in a logical fashion. You'll also have lifetime access to the videos, so you can go back and review them any time you want! {Can you tell I'm really excited about PianoFlix?}

If you're teaching teens, they'll be asking about learning their favorite pop tunes at some point, so why wait until they ask you? Sign up for this training course, learn how to teach pop music at the piano, and surprise your students with your newly-formed teaching skills!

If you have teens whose motivation might have waned, this would also be a terrific way to encourage them to stay in piano lessons. I think most teens would LOVE to play pop tunes!

In some parts of the world (hi to our friends in the southern hemisphere!), it is summertime, and teachers and students are on holiday. Why not use part of your holiday to take this course, expand your teaching skills, and surprise your students with a fun new way of approaching piano lessons? They'll thank you over and over again.

This would also be a PERFECT topic for a summer camp for your students!

PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano is a video series that you'll definitely want to investigate. The regular price is only $129US, but you can save $20 right now by using code MELODY001 when you sign up, and pay only $109US! That's an amazing deal on such a valuable course.

Think about the possibilities here... Add pop piano to your teaching repertoire, your teens will share the news with their friends, and you may have new students knocking on your door! Set your studio apart with PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano. You'll be so glad you did!

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